Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lu: "Don't Throw Out Shaughnessy with the Bathwater!"

In her article “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence,” Min-Zhan Lu sets out “to critique an essentialist assumption about language that is dominant in the teaching of basic writing,” specifically that “the essence of meaning precedes and is independent of language, which serves merely as a vehicle to communicate that essence” (57). Her approach is clever enough, if not entirely fair, claiming that: “According to [the aforementioned] assumption, differences in discourse conventions have no effect on the essential meaning communicated” (57). Words and punctuation are little more than symbols used to construct meaning, so it is only logical that the influence of discourse conventions on the writer’s choice of symbols and the way in which they are combined would change the meaning somewhat. By first taking the liberty of defining the essentialist position in her own words and then presenting her argument reductio ad absurdum, she presents the essentialist viewpoint as not merely inferior, but illogical.

She also spends a considerable amount of time discussing Mina Shaughnessy, playing a bit of tug o’ war with her legacy, wanting neither to condone Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialist view that language can be taught independent of meaning and politics, nor surrendering the legacy into the hands of Hirsh and his cronies.

Lu’s approach to Shaughnessy is revisionist, and she is ultimately interested in claiming her rightful portion of Shaughnessy’s legacy on her own terms. She seems to assert that Shaughnessy’s adherence to the essentialists assumptions were not fully conscious or entirely purposeful, stating: “If…some of [Shaughnessy’s] own pedagogical advice indicates that an essentialist view of language could impede rather than enhance one’ effort to fulfill these tasks, then the only way we can fully benefit from the legacy of Shaughnessy is to take the essentialist view of language itself task” (58).* And that’s just what Lu is attempting to do here. She is salvaging what she finds useful from Shaughnessy’s pedagogy, which when left in its original context, she believes “enacts a systematic denial of the political context of students’ linguistic decisions” (65). This is inexcusable to Lu who is not only interested in improving students’ writing but also wants to change “their thinking and their relationship with home an school” (63). So she spends a good deal of the article confronting, in her words, “issues that need to be addressed if we are to carry on [Shaughnessy’s] legacy: a fuller recognition of the social dimensions of students’ linguistic decisions” (66).

Overall, Lu reminds me a bit of the churches that synchronize their Bibles with their modern beliefs by literally cutting out or marking through certain passages.** Lu has the benefit of approximately four decades of additional research, yet she seems desperate to reconcile her own personal philosophy to partially outdated theory. Despite her own strides in the field of basic writing theory, Lu seems hesitant to surge ahead and forfeit her explicit communion with the ever-divine Mina Shaughnessy. However, I assume that this need to maintain this connection in order to feel validated says as much about the strength of Shaughnessy’s legacy as it does of Lu.

*Isn’t this an example of the logical fallacy of false dilemma? It is not a way or the best way, it is "the only way.”

**Disclaimer: I sincerely mean no disrespect to those congregations, nor to those who wish to view ancient religious texts as "living" documents, nor to any other religion for that matter. But I think the comparison is valid and illustrates my point about Lu quite well. Hopefully, I haven't offended anyone out there in cyberspace.

And now E.M. Forster provides the answer to that burning question:

Which came first, the meaning or the language?

"How can I know what I think till I see what I say?"
E.M. Forster

Stay tuned next week when Forster answers:
Who's the father of Anna Nicole's baby?

Lu, Min-zhan
. “Redefining the Legacy of Mina Shaughnessy: A Critique of the Politics of Linguistic Innocence.” Landmark Essays on Basic Writing. Mahwah: Erlbaum, 2001.


S00nerfan1 said...

"If language can be taught independent of meaning and politics." That sounds like an odd statement. I can see language minuse politices, but languge minus meaning? That somehow looks like a paradox. . . hmmm.

bluegypsy said...

Excellent quote at the end! It really says it all! I commented about similar things on my blog... more specific to meaning or language first. But I agree that Lu seems to never put her foot down so to speak. While reading this chapter, I often couldn't tell if she was supporting Shaughnessy or going against her. Perhaps her claims need to be a little stronger.

Gabe Isackson said...

As many of our reading date Shaugnessy's work there remains the fact they still reference it and its place in basic writing. Lu drives me nuts with her constant quotation of hers without establishing her own basis.